Blogs > Cliopatria > Leadership

Aug 23, 2004 2:20 pm


Is President Bush a leader?

At dinner with friends last night in Seattle we got into an argument about this. My friend argued that Bush is a leader, whatever you think of his policies. In 6 months, he pointed out in defense of his position, President Bush succeeded in staging a war against Iraq that virtually no other leader in the world had pressed for. Didn't that make Bush a leader?

I objected that leadership implies wisdom. What Bush did in Iraq demonstrated that he lacks wisdom. He operated as president from his gut without taking into consideration the many problems his policies would aggravate or lead to. There are many ways to define leadership. Princeton’s Fred Greenstein in a recent book listed half a dozen qualities presidents need: emotional intelligence, the ability to understand complex events, political skills, communication skills, organizational abilities, policy vision. Hans Morgenthau, the University of Chicago political scientist, argued that one mark of a leader was the ability to handle complexity, particularly in the making of foreign policy, an ability, he noted, that the masses lack:

The statesman must think in terms of the national interest, conceived as power among other powers. The popular mind, unaware of the fine distinctions of the statesman's thinking, reasons more often than not in the simple moralistic and legalistic terms of absolute good and absolute evil. The statesman must take the long view, proceeding slowly and by detours, paying with small losses for great advantage; he must be able to temporize, to compromise, to bide his time. The popular mind wants quick results; it will sacrifice tomorrow's real benefit for today's apparent advantage.

Now who does Bush remind you of? The reflective, strategizing leader or the impulsive, unthinking masses?

But my friend had a point. Bush is no Jimmy Carter. Unlike a Jimmy Carter, for instance, Bush knows how to use power. Democrats who think of him as a dolt miss this aspect of his presidency. And they do it at their political peril. Underestimate Bush and you got whacked good.

But is there a name for someone who lacks the qualities of the leader but who nonetheless understands the uses of power? There must be some word that fits this but I don't know it. Any experts in Latinisms are welcome to enlighten me.

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More Comments:

Michael Meo - 9/4/2004

has the root of "power" in the second syllable.

David a. Cousins - 8/24/2004

What is up with you Bush haters. All this gobly-gook talk about leadership is elitist. Bush is a strong leader. He overhauled the government with the homeland security office, removed Sadaam, the Taliban, rounded up over 3,000 Al-Queda worldwide, cut off hundreds of millions of dollars in their funding and the WMD's of Lybia are in Oak Ridge ,TN. Your Kerry-type elitism blinds you to reality. And what is not "wise" is responding to terrorism by bombing an aspirin factory or one of your cronies stuffing national secrets in his shorts.

Ed Schmitt - 8/24/2004

Interesting post, Rick. There is a difficulty with the way you frame the question, however. There is an entire field of leadership studies that has emerged over the last three decades, and while leadership scholars don't agree on much, there is a consensus that leadership can no longer be seen as just the traits of the leader - Periclean leadership as Garry Wills dubbed it, traits-centered leadership as Ralph Stogdill catalogued it 50 years ago. Instead, Leadership Studies scholars contend, it has to be viewed as a process, as much about the leader him/herself as the followers, and also I would add, the person and the historical moment (the importance of historical context is often an underappreciated variable in these new studies). There are still scholars like Greenstein and others who focus on traits or even the meaning of charisma, but I think the most fruitful inquiries also examine the desires of followers, and how well the leader facilitates or moves an institution closer to the goals of those he/she leads. There is also a debate as to whether leadership has to be directed toward moral ends to qualify as true leadership (as James MacGregor Burns contends - the argument you used with your friend), or if it simply requires moving followers toward a mutually agreed upon goal, even if it is inhumane (or unwise). The whole endeavor of looking at leadership gets more complex the more you dig into it. This new discipline (which is really interdisciplinary) does seem to give credence to the new political history, which looks at the political process from the bottom up.

Rick Shenkman - 8/23/2004

Caudillo isnot bad. But isn't there some generic word that describes someone who excels in the exercise of power? In high school I had a booklet that listed Latinisms for all kinds of odd expressions. If only I could get my hands on it I am sure I'd find the right word

Jonathan Dresner - 8/23/2004

It's not Latin, but it's from Latin America....

You could call him Machiavellian, in a shallow sort of way (actually, there's a great deal of Bush/Republican strategy and method that draws straight from The Prince), but even Machiavelli thought that power should be used in the service of order and prosperity, and that despotism was a necessary but temporary stage preceding republicanism.